It was the worst of times – that dead time between people-focussed governments, when the clocks have swung back to a harsh and mean-minded era. Someone in the food bank queue mumbled, ‘ain’t we s’posed to be one of the World’s richest countries?’ A northerly wind blew snow flurries around numb feet as children forgot the cold to build a snow blob.
Potatoes with pimples, carrots greying at the ends, selection boxes past their sell by date, crackers that don’t crack – their jokes not funny anymore.
His ‘shop’ complete, Bob Cratchit lifted Tiny Tim and held him out to a volunteer. ‘Please let him play here in the warmth for a few hours as I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘This is a food bank, love, not a creche,’ replied a ruddy cheeked matron hardened to the effects of poverty, leaning away from the crooked-limbed child. ‘But here’s a toy for the kid.’ She pushed something into his bag.
Worth a try. Cratchit squinted at the sleet and scooped up his son, holding two carrier bags in the other hand. ‘It’s back to granny for you, Tim.’
‘But her house is cold, Dad!’ the lad squealed.
‘Well, clap your hands and whistle God Save the King like I told you.’
A military ambulance rumbled by and a soldier on patrol eyed him with suspicion. Bob’s minimum wage job barely covered the rent, leaving little for food or heating. The threat of dismissal prompted him to hurry, but as he rounded a corner, he slipped on a patch of ice, child and food sent flying. Cratchit lay on his back, blinking snowflakes from his eyes. He tried to move but couldn’t.
The crying of Tiny Tim attracted the attention of the soldier. ‘You’d better move along, Sir, or I’ll have you interred for vagrancy’.
Cratchit found he couldn’t speak, and could only move his eyes.
The soldier stood over him, looking down the barrel of his rifle. ‘Right, I’m calling for back-up’.
A car slowed, its occupants gawping at the two prone figures guarded by a soldier. Terrorists or Communists. Or perhaps Communist Terrorists? Both words were getting a good workout in the media. The car sped away. Peeling-paint doors remained resolutely closed along the terrace of worker cottages.
After thirty bone-freezing minutes, during which the child’s crying had become a whimper, a riot van arrived and Cratchit and Tiny Tim were bundled into the back. Squashed vegetables and a crushed toy the only evidence they had ever been there.
The van drove to the local team’s football stadium. It had been re-purposed as a Re-Education Centre, run by Chinese guards. The People’s Republic of China had been the successful bidder, having demonstrated relevant experience and eerie enthusiasm.
Cratchit and son were carried on stretchers into the stadium to a medical tent where they were gawped at and prodded by white-coated orderlies.
‘At least we’ll get fed and have a roof over our heads’ Cratchit said to his son.
An elderly man in the bed next to him leaned over and whispered, ‘don’t bet on it. They’re assessing us for ability to work. If you’re no use to ’em they’ll send you to Maggie’s Cabin.’
A startled Cratchit recovered enough muscle power to twist his head slightly. With a croak, his voice returned, ‘What in Hell’s name is Maggie’s Cabin?’
Bloodshot eyes and a pause were unsettling. The old man leant towards him. ‘It’s the away team changing room. Trouble makers, the old, sick and injured are taken there, and no one ever comes out.’
Cratchit gulped and glanced at his son. ‘Well, we’d better do what we can to make the home team, eh son?’ His reassuring grin did little to lift the spirits of the permanently disappointed boy.
Soon after, they were transferred to trollies and wheeled out through a side exit.
‘Be strong and play well!’ the man shouted, earning a slap from an orderly.
A thin veil of snow shrouded the rejects as their trolley wheels squeaked along a rubber mat that led to… the away team changing rooms.
‘In a curious, disconnected way, I’m ready; and it’ll be a release for Tim from his miserable existence.’ All is calm. Cratchit smiled at the upside-down, narrow eyes above him and hummed the tune that was in his head – Silent Night…
Tall Tim awoke from his dream, quickly dressed in the cold room and shuffled to his kitchen. An army truck pulled up in the snow-mush car park and six squaddies in wrong-scenery camouflage gear jumped out, grabbing the communal Christmas tree and shoving it into the truck.
‘There’s something you don’t see every morning,’ Tim muttered as he stroked his cat, Trotsky, to a purr. One of them returned and planted a sign. Tim moved to another window so that he could read it. ‘CHRISTMAS CANCELLED FOR UNIVERSAL CREDIT SCROUNGERS’ it read, in a menacing script, accompanied by the regime’s iron fist logo.
‘Our government, dropping all pretence of human decency, has spoken.’ Trotsky purred his indifference. Tim shuffled to the front door and picked up a leaflet that had been posted overnight.
‘Join the Resistance and let’s reclaim our country from the fascists!‘ the headline bawled.
He sat at his table, sipping tea and spreading marmalade on his toast. ‘Might be worth a look, Trotters, but only after the snow and ice have melted.’